TSA Needs Congressional Support

Posted May 1, 2003 at 2:44pm

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the idea of commercial airliners being turned into weapons of mass destruction seemed a thing of Hollywood melodrama. But terrorists turned that plot into a grim reality. The task of securing our skies and airports from future attack has become one of our key priorities.

We have made remarkable progress. The Transportation Security Administration has hired, trained and deployed more than 50,000 security professionals. We have invested in personnel and equipment, and we have revamped screening procedures. The public is significantly safer now than it was on Sept. 10, 2001.

Yet our task is not done, and we must not falter. In order to accomplish its mission, TSA needs funding and support from Congress. The agency must be free to devise and enforce security practices that will protect our people and our economic interests.

In 2000, I authored the Airport Security Improvement Act, which became Public Law 106-528. It required background checks for all airport and airline employees with access to secure areas and better training for airport screeners. It mandated better physical security for airports and air-traffic-control facilities and increased use of explosive detection systems. However, it was barely implemented before the Sept. 11 attacks. I wanted the legislation to go further and be implemented sooner, but my efforts met with resistance and an unwillingness to make the necessary investment to secure airplanes and airports.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, passed in the wake of Sept. 11, originally mandated that every commercial airport in the United States must screen all checked baggage with explosive detection systems by Dec. 31, 2002. The vast majority of our airports were able to meet this deadline. Unfortunately, some of our largest airports could not complete the financing and construction necessary to redesign their terminals around these SUV-sized machines. The legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security permitted TSA to extend the deadline for these airports for one year. In the meantime, they are using alternate means of screening all checked bags, and money was appropriated in fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2003 to comply with the extended deadline.

Still, construction has not yet begun in earnest and the funds appropriated by Congress remain untouched. My amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill empowered TSA to begin financing these projects, but time is short, and the deadline should not be extended again.

This problem is symptomatic of TSA’s already diminished status as a component of the Department of Homeland Security. Undersecretary James Loy has been forced to consider cutbacks of vital security programs and furloughs of all TSA employees due to a lack of support from Capitol Hill and the administration. If we do not give TSA the tools it needs to protect public safety, we will be needlessly vulnerable to another terrorist attack.

It is also critical to close the cargo security loophole. Twenty-two percent of all air cargo in the United States is carried on passenger flights, but only a tiny fraction of it is inspected. The General Accounting Office found that air cargo is vulnerable to tampering during land transportation or at cargo handling facilities. Regulations governing shippers and haulers are lax, and TSA lacks authority to revoke the licenses of companies in violation of the rules that do exist. It does not make sense to inconvenience passengers with security and baggage screening if we leave cargo in the belly of the same flight unchecked.

Last year, the Senate passed my legislation, the Air Cargo Security Act, which would require training and background checks for cargo handlers, and increased security and inspections for cargo facilities. It did not make it to the president. TSA needs the authority to oversee and regulate cargo companies and freight forwarders while preserving this vital source of income for airlines and carriers such as United Parcel Service and FedEx. In fiscal 2001, cargo accounted for nearly $13 billion, or 10 percent, of the passenger airlines’ total revenue. The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee unanimously approved this bipartisan legislation again earlier this year, clearing the way for action on the floor.

With three of the seven largest airlines based in Texas, I am keenly aware of the critical economic role played by the aviation industry. I supported the $3.5 billion assistance package in this year’s supplemental appropriations bill to help get airlines over the hump. Nevertheless, I have grave reservations about diverting the security fees paid by passengers and airlines. These fees represent TSA’s only dedicated funding source. Without it, the agency is completely dependent on annual Congressional appropriations to accomplish its broad and critical mission.

In lean times, with the memory of terrorism fading, it is tempting to cut corners on security. We do so at great peril. Shortchanging aviation security will negate our efforts since Sept. 11. Repeating the mistakes of the past is not an option, and history will judge us harshly if we fall into that trap.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on aviation.